Kelvin Sampson: Sustainability key to successful program
College basketball has featured plenty of one-hit wonders where a team comes out of nowhere and shocks the nation for one season but completely disappears the next year.
Building a program that is successful year after year, however, is a much different challenge.
Now in his 28th season as a head coach for a Division I basketball program, Kelvin Sampson knows the difference between having a good team for one year and consistently having one that is competing for championships.
“You can bump up one year and have a kid transfer out of the blue that you didn’t know was available, and all of the sudden you have a good team and everybody thinks you’re really good,” Sampson said. “But just maintaining it (is much more difficult).”
While building a sustainable winning program has many challenges, Sampson has already had success with it in the past.
From 1994-2006, Sampson led Oklahoma to 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, including a trip to the Final Four in 2002.
Getting farther into the tournament, however, does not always mean that a team is better.
A big reason that maintaining success is hard is because sometimes a team can run into a more in-sync, polished and talented program earlier in the tournament and get eliminated sooner than anticipated, which is common, the now Houston head coach told reporters via Zoom on Tuesday.
“We lost in the Elite Eight the year after we went to the Final Four to Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse, who won it all that year,” Sampson said. “That to me was a lot harder than making the Final Four.”
When Sampson got to UH in 2014, he took over a struggling program that had only one NCAA Tournament appearance since 1992.
Sampson used his experience in building and maintaining a program and has been able to transform the Cougars into one of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference.
Houston has had many talented players under Sampson, but it is not the main reason for the program’s success.
“Players come and go,” Sampson said. “People forget how good Damyean Dotson was. They forget how good Rob Gray, Corey Davis, Armoni (Brooks), Galen (Robinson) and Chris Harris (were). Your picture is always evolving. You know it’s a new team.”
The reason for the Cougars’ success stems from a selfless mindset and culture focused on attitude and effort, Sampson said.
To maintain that culture year after year, Sampson and his staff focus on recruiting student-athletes that will buy into the culture from the moment they step on campus, the UH head coach said.
As a result of recruits buying into the Cougars’ culture, the team has one of the highest player retention rates in the country because its athletes are fully bought into the program’s culture and develop a team-first mentality.
While Sampson has been able to build and maintain a successful program at UH, he believes continuing to sustain this type of success is becoming more difficult every year.
“You want your program to be built for long-term success,” Sampson said. “Every coach has a vision of the way they want their program to look, but I think roster management in this day and age is more difficult than ever because every new rule that gets passed is anti-program building.”
One of these rules that complicate building a program with long-term success includes the one-time transfer rule, which is expected to pass in January 2021 and will allow student-athletes to transfer and compete immediately once during their collegiate career.
“The one-time transfer rule,” Sampson said. “We haven’t seen that yet, but you talk about the wild, wild west. You’re going to have coaches recruiting kids off your roster.”
Another obstacle is the ability for underclassmen to hire agents to help them navigate through the draft.
”If an underclassman hires an agent, what do you think that agent’s telling them?” Sampson said. “We’ve become the enemy almost for some agents.”
Because of all these challenges, Sampson and his staff have committed to looking years ahead when it comes to recruiting.
Sampson said that he has a white board in his office with potential recruits as far ahead as the 2024 season.
In these recruits, UH not only looks for talent but also personality.
“We want depth at guards,” Sampson said. “We want depth in the frontcourt. We want to be able to play 10 guys that all can play. But nurturing a team (like that) is not easy. That’s why you have to really really focus on high character kids.”